The Stew Review: ‘The Green Knight’ equal parts confounding, engaging

Dev Patel as Sir Gawain in The Green Knight.
Dev Patel as Sir Gawain in The Green Knight.(Eric Zachanowich | A24)
Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 9:22 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - The Green Knight is stunning. It is confounding. It is enrapturing. It is ponderous. It is often all of these things at once.

An adaptation of the 14th century, anonymously written poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, it is the tale of a knight desperately attempting to earn the honor of his title. Writer/director David Lowery adorns all of it with some of the most stark, memorable visuals you’re likely to see in a movie this year. The film doesn’t always work, but I’ve nonetheless been unable to stop thinking about it since I walked out of the theater.

Dev Patel is Gawain, a carefree young man who seems more content to dally about with ale and women than he is at finding a way to earn his place among the knights at the Round Table of the king (Sean Harris). Until, that is, a strange knight issues a challenge on Christmas morning to the king and his court, a challenge that none save for Gawain have the courage to take. Or perhaps they know well enough not to. The green knight (Ralph Ineson) demands a challenger strike a blow against him, but in turn the challenger must then one year later allow that same blow be struck against them. Perhaps thinking that a killing strike would nullify such a commitment, Gawain beheads the green knight, only for the knight to then ride off laughing, his head literally in hand. Fast forward nearly a full year later and the king compels Gawain to fulfill his end of the bargain, and thus the freshly knighted lad begins his quest to seek out the knight at the Green Chapel.

Almost as soon as Gawain leaves the confines of the castle and embarks on his quest proper, it becomes apparent that this will not be a journey of high adventure, thrilling sword fights and heroic deeds. Quite the opposite, in fact. Gawain’s first encounter with unruly denizens of the world leaves him gagged and tied. This, Lowery assures us, will not be a fun time.

What the film actually is ends up something more cryptic in execution, in texture and thematically. There is no shortage of beautifully haunting visuals. The tone and texture evoked by the imagery is enrapturing. Dev Patel’s often wordless performance conveys so much internalized emotion. The film is a mesmerizing canvas with much to appreciate as multiple artists brush their contributions across it, all in harmony to bring this world of existential and physical decay into being.

But just what Lowery is trying to say through all of this at times feels as dense as the fog obscuring the landscape Gawain traverses. My best read on the film is that Lowery considers Gawain’s journey a metaphor for the weight of legacy and expectations. Two of the key changes he makes to the story are that Gawain is now a blood relation of the king (assumed, but never named, to be King Arthur), and that his mother is who uses witchcraft to summon the knight to begin with. Does Gawain accept the knight’s challenge because he feels he’s expected to live up to the legendary status of his half-uncle? At minimum, Lowery is using the story to work through some maternal issues. Either way, Lowery’s view of familial legacy is complicated at best, dismal and cynical at worst.

Both the king and queen, to say nothing of the land over which they rule, appear ashen and near-skeletal in their features. Any glory that once inhabited either the throne room or the kingdom beyond it has long since regressed and crumbled, making Gawain’s quest one of sheer obligation. Gawain claims he’s venturing off to earn honor and a place at the Round Table. But the concept of honor as presented in the film is only ever spoken of in its most basic terms. Never do we understand what it means to Gawain beyond him merely earning a title he is expected to inhabit. Honor, Lowery seems to say, is only earned through the courage of conviction as much as it is through the boldness of deed.

Coming to this conclusion was not without struggle, though. While rarely visually dull, the film’s pacing is often glacial at best. Gawain has a hard and fast deadline by which he must accomplish his task, but you wouldn’t know it given how ponderous his travels feel. There is a persistent feeling of dread that swirls throughout the proceedings, but it rarely if ever feels propulsive. Perhaps this is part of the metaphor Lowery is attempting to evoke regarding the weight of expectation. Gawain is compelled to complete his quest, but he (as young members of a generation often do) lacks direction and a propulsive reason to move forward beyond the fear of failure. Even if that is the intent, it doesn’t make the film an easier piece to watch.

Given the frustrating nature of it all, I find myself surprised at how much I still enjoyed it. I find myself eager to revisit it and look deeper into what it offers, if only because now I fully understand the scope of what the film both is and is not. This is in no way a movie for everyone and, quite frankly, I’m somewhat shocked that more people didn’t walk out of my screening.

But if you’re willing and able to engage with a movie that can often feel like homework there’s a lot here that is engaging enough to be worth digging into.

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